Engineer of the Week No.80: Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Audrey Killick FREng, FIEE, BSc, HonDSc (10th September 1924 – 7th July 2019)
On what would have been her 95th birthday we remember the recently-deceased defence electronics engineer, Betty Killick, who was also the first woman to become a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Betty Killick was one of the UK’s top, top-secret engineers, who worked her whole career in defence electronics. Said to have been simultaneously terrifying and inspiring to her colleagues, she was also a surprisingly irreverent person when dealing with the heirarchy, which her American counterparts found hilarious.
Unlike many women of her generation who entered engineering, there was nothing in that line within her family background. She was born and educated in south London and her father was an accountant who rose to become the Director of Finance to the Cotton Board. Drafted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in about 1942 she became a radar mechanic, considered an elite trade by other WAAFs, because of the knowledge of maths and physics required to be accepted for training, but this gave her a taste for engineering. On demobilisation she worked briefly as a lab assistant at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, at Farnborough, before taking a degree in natural philosophy (physics) at St Andrews University.
When she graduated in 1951 she joined the Antenna Division of the Admiralty Signals Establishment near Portsmouth. Her early work was included revolutionary developments in defence radar and sonar systems. Of course her work in this field was and remains very secret but in 1969 she was permitted to publish some papers on microwave antenna arrays, at the 1st European Microwave Conference. One of the few publicly available descriptions of her work is from Royal Academy of Engineering’ citation in 1982, when she became its first female Fellow: “She rapidly made a name for herself through her work on broadband low-sidelobe reflectors, and on high power frequency scanning antennas. She later led a group developing an electronically scanned antenna and associated phase shifters, capable of handling 1MW of peak pulsed power. This was successfully demonstrated in 1969 as part of a radar which was electronically scanned in elevation and mechanically scanned in azimuth with a limited “look-back” facility by frequency scan.”
In 1969 she moved to the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment (AUWE) at Portland in Dorset, where she led development of new homing, propulsion and guidance systems for torpedoes. These systems were key to the long success of the Spearfish weapons used in submarines, and the smaller Sting Ray light torpedo fired from helicopters and aircraft, such that versions of these are still in use in the Royal Navy.
Her rise through the Civil Service’s scientific ranks was swift. She was promoted to Senior Principal Scientific Officer in 1966 and was further promoted to Deputy Chief Scientific Officer and Head of the Underwater Weapons Department at the AUWE ten years later. As well as her FREng, she was also honoured with a fellowship of the IEE (1980) and an honorary doctorate from St Andrews University (1988). Although quick to ensure equality for herself in her unique role at such a high level in the Scientific Civil Service, she absolutely rejected any labelling that mentioned her gender, prefering to be regarded as an excellent engineer with no reference to her gender.
On her official retirement from the Civil Service in 1984, she had a brief, unsatisfactory stint with GEC, but then joined the Marine Technology Directorate, facilitating knowledge transfer between academia and industry. She spent her retirement in a Sussex village and died in 2019.